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Update: New Chapter, New Worries

Hey guys. It took a long time, but I finally got a new chapter up, despite all that’s been going on. Hooray for me! The formatting’s still a little fucked up, but I promise I’ll fix that as soon as I’m able.

Unfortunately, I had my post-surgery follow-up appointment recently, and that’s about the only hooray I’ll be getting. While there’s no immediate danger, it’s my surgeon’s professional opinion that my thymus needs to be removed in order to prevent any long-term health issues it might cause. The way he explained it to me, even if it doesn’t keep growing and restricting my breathing (which they have no way of knowing but doesn’t seem very likely), it’s putting unnecessary pressure on my trachea and the other organs in my thoracic cavity. To use the exact phrase he did, “it’s not a matter of if, but when”.

So that means that I’m going to need another surgery. Only this time it’s nothing as cute as a few small incisions. Because of the position of the thymus, I’ll be requiring a partial median sternotomy, which some of you might recognize as the preliminary step in open-heart surgery. For those not in the know, having a median sternotomy basically means they’re gonna make an incision along my sternum and then crack it open with a tiny electric buzzsaw. After that they’ll remove my thymus (still nicknamed “Quatto”) and then close the gap in my sternum back up with metal wires. From what videos I’ve seen a tiny crowbar is also involved at some point in the procedure, and overall, this one looks like it’s going to be a serious bitch once the general anesthesia wears off.

And therein lies the second problem. Because I’m still on a 90-day probationary period after being promoted to full-time at my current job, I can’t risk taking time off for this surgery right now. My surgeon tells me I’ll be in the hospital for at least three to four days, and then on house arrest for three to four weeks while I finish healing. Working during that time won’t be at all possible, presumably because I’ll either be in great pain or stoned out of my fucking gourd on the pain-killers I’ll be taking to deal with the great pain. So in order to keep my job (or at least not risk losing it), we’ve decided to postpone this surgery for a few more months.

And on that note, I’d like to quit my bitching for a sec and make an apology. If I’m going to be 100% honest with myself and with you, there was no reason this chapter needed to take this long. Yes, being promoted to full-time and finding out I have an engorged fleshy parasite choking my windpipe were certainly distracting events, but that still shouldn’t have prevented me from putting out a chapter for the few months that it’s been. To tell the truth, I’ve just been putting off releasing anything because I planned out a prolonged legal battle at the climax of this arc, which we are rapidly approaching, and I never once stopped to consider that I know absolutely fucking nothing about how the legal system works.

Yes, to no one’s surprise, I underestimated how difficult writing something like this might be and dropped the ball when it came to time management yet again. It’s not done. It’s nowhere close to being done. And after a few conversations with someone who does know a thing or two about law, it’ll be a while before it is. But, the good news is, I have a friend who’s a lawyer that’s willing to help me plan this whole thing out so writing it won’t feel like such an insurmountable challenge.

I’ve sat down and talked with him, and I’m going to use these next couple of months before my surgery to get a headstart on writing this, which means hopefully it’ll all be ready and waiting for release by the end of the summer. I know it’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but please bear with me here. I made a mistake and I wanna fix it by giving you the best ending to this arc that I can possibly write. That’s really all I have to say. I sincerely hope you’ll accept my apology and continue following Goodfae.

Bonus Interlude (Officer Thompson)

Previous || Next

Officer Thompson just stood there in the hallway, as unmoving as his partner and the little sister. However, whereas the kid and the sister had the sort of rigid, frozen posture one often associated with shock, Thompson’s shoulders were stooped, his body languid. His reaction had been the exact opposite of theirs. Rather than being too surprised to move, he simply couldn’t summon the energy to care.

“What the-?” the kid started, before realization finally made him jolt forward like someone had kicked him in the ass. “Where did he go?! Where did Al go?!”

Officer Thompson watched the kid went ballistic, searching the station with a frantic mania for their missing persons of interest. He wanted to groan. Wanted to, but he’d known something like this was bound to happen. Something would always go wrong with investigations where the Allesandris were concerned. However he’d expected the Marquis to be a bit more… subtle. Up and disappearing usually wasn’t his style.

“They’ve gotta be here somewhere!… Where the hell are they?!” the kid practically raved, panting. “Did they just walk out the front door? Did someone literally just let the Marquis walk out the front door? Or is he a doppelganger now too?!”

“For chrissakes, just let them go,” Thompson complained. “They’re free to leave whenever they like, we haven’t actually charged them with anything.”

His “partner” glared at him.

“Actually, I did charge him with something. Obstruction of justice for refusing to comply with an officer-”

“Are you for fuckin’ real?”

“But even if I didn’t, we need to know-!”

Thompson put on a hand on the kid’s shoulder. He was looking at him sympathetically, like he was trying to comfort a child whose puppy had just died, but his grip was firm, forceful.

“Let them go. Trust me. It’s better for everyone that way. You ain’t gonna find anything out there you don’t already know.”

At first it looked like the kid had missed or chosen to ignore the hidden meaning behind his words, but eventually he slumped his shoulders and relented. He walked wordlessly down the staircase. The little shit’s little sister looked up at Thompson, her eyes moist with fear and apprehension. Thompson frowned. He was forgetting something.

He put a hand on her shoulder, expecting the tiny flinch that came with it. To his surprise, it never came. She just kept staring at him, never breaking eye contact. Ah, that’s right. He was her life raft, now that the kid had gone.

Thompson sighed. “Look, he’s just a little frustrated right now is all. I’m sure it’s no big deal. Now come on, let’s get you home.”

He said, but knew deep down that he didn’t really believe it. He’d seen things play out this way before. It was like going to see the same recital every year ‘round Christmas time. They’d switch out the singers and sometimes the words might be different, but every time he heard it the song remained the same. It always ended in disaster.

The kid was waiting for them in the car, already strapped into the passenger side seat. Thompson rapped on the window.

“You forget something?” he growled as his partner rolled down the window.

Anastasia stood next to him, almost tiny by comparison. She was giving the kid the doe eyes, the kind that could melt hearts, open doors and make any parent forget they were mad. Thompson knew best, his little girl used them on him all the time. It was anyone’s guess if they worked on grumpy detectives though.

“Oh,” the kid said, looking up. “Anastasia, I-”

“Can it,” Thompson said. “You left the little lady all by herself back there. How do you think she’s gonna get a ride home if her brother’s gone missing?”

“I-” the kid said, but Thompson held out the keys to the cruiser.

“Move over,” he said forcefully, for there was no other way to talk to people in the kind of funk the kid was in. “You’re driving.”

The kid obliged, swinging his legs over the middle and into the driver’s side seat. Thompson opened the door so the little sister could climb inside, then shut it without even climbing in the back. He walked over to the driver’s side of the car, still staring at the kid sternly.

“Take her home,” he said. “Then you can apologize to her allllll you want. Take your time. I’m sure you’ve got a loooot to talk about.”

The kid frowned. “But what about you?”

“It’s not too far from here to my house, I can walk,” Thompson said, loosening up a bit. “Plus I was planning on getting groceries anyway. You just take her home, then bring the car back to the station, got it? I’m clocking out early.”

For a second the kid frowned, which seemed to break him out of his depression. “Again?”

“Yeah yeah, whatever Sergeant Snitch,” Thompson said dismissively. “Just make sure to punch out for me, alright?”

Waving them goodbye, Thompson walked off in the direction of the grocer’s with renewed vigor. He’d done his good deed for the day, and he’d even made the kid look like a turd. Shame about the little shit and his sister, but what was he supposed to do about that? In every other way, today had been a win-win in Thompson’s book (Thompson often fancied himself a man of simple pleasures).

Now, what was it he was supposed to get again? Eggs, some milk, some chicken, some vegetables… he couldn’t remember. Instead, he did what he always did, and checked the handwritten note his wife had left him.

“‘Kay, so we need eggs, some milk, some chicken, some roast beef,” he listed off to himself. “Some bread, some pork, some… paprika… the fuck is paprika? Some lettuce, some tomatoes, a couple of potatoes…”

———

Thompson ambled down Main Street towards his apartment, his otherwise excellent vision obscured by enough brown grocery bags to topple a normal man. Having 20/20 eyesight like he did was just a joke if you ended up having to navigate the streets with fucking echolocation.

He sighed. This was his fault. He’d put off doing this for too long. Trying to save money by making fewer trips to the grocer’s. Not many people were lucky enough to have a job that let them pay for fresh food in this economy, so Thompson had made sure to pinch his pennies. Either until he struck it big in the lottery, or a spot working for the Marquis opened up. Next to being a K9, that was the best job someone like him could hope to land.

His foot landed in a pothole, causing him to almost trip. He cursed, teetering dangerously. The contents of his bags came within a hair’s breadth of spilling, but he willed them to stay put with sheer determination. Not a single tomato was lost that day. He sighed with relief as he regained his balance and kept walking.

He said all that now, but he wasn’t dissatisfied with his current job. Okay, that was a lie, but at least he’d worked hard to become a cop. Damn hard, and considering his background, the fact that he’d made it made the victory all the sweeter. A werewolf with a badge, that was him. When they talked about the fuzz, they were talking about him (literally).

Of course, he wasn’t so proud he was above a few dirty deeds done dirt cheap for the Marquis when he needed a nose and Thompson needed the cash. Pinch your pennies, he said, and never assume the job you have today is the job you’ll have tomorrow. That’s what his father had taught him. He’d take work wherever and whenever he could get it, and money too. Or else…

“Honey, I’m home,” he droned, too tired from carrying the bags to sound enthusiastic. Something heavy slammed into his leg. He felt the wind get knocked out of him as his daughter headbutted him in the stomach.

“Welcome home, daddy!”

Or else how could he pay for that sterling smile?

“Mary Marie Thompson! Show your daddy a little respect!” a stern voice chided the tiny tigress.

Bobby smiled wearily. Ah yes. The other love of his life, here to save the day. Strong but motherly hands picked up his little girl by the scruff with practiced ease and lifted her into a cradling embrace. He tried peering through a crack between the bags to get a better look at his wife.

“Hi Felicia,” he said, grunting. “You mind giving me a hand here?”

She sighed. “I told you you needed to go get groceries two weeks ago, but did you listen to me? Nooo.”

“A ‘welcome home Bobby, how was your day’ would be appreciated,” he quipped. “You sexy, sexy kitty.”

He still couldn’t see her but her chuff made him think she was frowning in that pouty way she had that he thought was so cute.

“Not in front of Mary, Bobby,” she said disdainfully. “Besides, how do you expect me to help you when I’ve got my hands full taking care of our little girl?”

“Ah come on, let her down,” Bobby pleaded. “She didn’t do nothing wrong, did you honey?”

Mary shook her head, giggling. “Nuh-uh!”

Felicia sighed and let little Mary go, who ran out of the room and around the house the moment her feet touched the ground.

“You spoil her too much, you know.”

“And I say you don’t spoil her enough,” Bobby remarked.

They spent the next half-hour unpacking the bags together, after which Bobby abandoned her to finish on her own while he went to go play with his baby girl. By the time the clock struck six, he could already smell dinner in the oven, and hear the sizzling of the frying pan from upstairs.

“Oh man, honey, you’re killing us here,” he said as he raced his little tyke down the stairs and into the kitchen. “You know how good that smells?”

Felicia smiled. “No Bobby, tell me how good it smells.”

“Good enough I could kiss you,” he said. He was true to his word too, planting a wet, smacking kiss on her forehead. She laughed.

“Bobby Thompson, that is disgusting!”

They ate noisily, Bobby regaling them with stories from the office (the kid-appropriate ones, of course). Mary laughed, banging her silverware, and Felicia would occasionally snort, losing her composure whenever Bobby got so excited he accidentally inhaled a few spoonfuls of creamed corn.

A shrill noise pierced the happy clamor like an arrow through the heart. Everyone went quiet. It was rare even for Bobby to receive phone calls at this time of night, and it never meant good news. It meant someone had been killed, or that there’d been some sort of major accident downtown. And then there were those rare calls, one-in-a-hundred. The ones where Bobby would suddenly get real quiet real quick and take the phone into the other room with him. The ones Felicia knew weren’t from the PD. She didn’t know how she knew, but this felt like one of those calls.

Bobby picked up the line. “What? What is it?”

He wasn’t being patient tonight. Wasn’t in the mood. It put her and Mary on edge.

“Daddy?” Little Mary asked, scared. Only three years old and she already knew what it looked like when the grown-ups were starting to get a little worried. She had that lycan sharpness, just like her daddy.

“Felicia, would you…?” Bobby gestured with his hands. Mary felt a warm pair of hands resting over her ears, pressing gently and forming a dampening seal that made everything sound faint and slightly fuzzy. A three-year old lycan’s senses weren’t fully developed yet, so this trick might work for another year or so.

A squeaky, indistinct voice blathered and babbled on the other side of the receiver, and Bobby scowled, scaring Mary. Her daddy looked angry. Really angry.

Felicia cooed reassuringly, about the only thing she could hear. “Don’t worry sweetie, Daddy will be fine. Now, eat your peas…”

Mary stared at the hated peas forlornly. Normally getting your kids just to eat their veggies was already a hassle, but when your kids had the same predatory, carnivorous instincts as a tiger… well, let’s just say brussel sprouts are a far cry from the most dangerous game.

But to her parent’s surprise, their little Mary picked up a spoonful and started eating them.

“There. See? Tasty, right?”

She chewed, her face a screwed-up mess. “No,” she said, looking like she would just spit it all out on her plate like last time. But, after a minute of chewing, she swallowed, and took another bite.

Felicia smiled, but she doubted that it looked convincing. Children were perceptive, sometimes in the most troubling ways, and she knew Mary was just going along with her because she was worried about her daddy.

Bobby walked over to her, phone already cradled in his arms just the way she’d been holding their daughter.

“Sorry, honey. Gotta take this. Make sure Mary finishes, alright? You eat your peas now.”

Little Mary nodded. “Mmm.”

Felicia looked at him, afraid. She knew that whatever was going on, they wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret from Mary for much longer. What was worse was that she knew Mary would find out her daddy’s secret before she, his wife, did. Felicia didn’t have the same hearing as her husband or her darling baby girl, so unless Bobby decided to get talkative, something he’d had almost four years to do now, she wouldn’t hear a damn word about any of this until Mary did.

Bobby must’ve picked up on this, because he tried his best to smile unconvincingly.

“Don’t worry. Lemme just see what they want,” he said, then hesitantly added: “I’ll explain everything later. I promise.”

She nodded, with a look that said, You damn well better.

Without another word, Bobby took the phone and walked down the hall with it, stretching the cord taut until he could open the door to the other room. The padded room, the quiet room. The one where anything you said or did inside it disappeared, the one her husband and now her daughter slept in wearing straitjackets on the night of a full moon.

He disappeared, the door slamming shut with the cord still trapped inside it. Felicia sighed, and looked down at her daughter.

“Daddy’s gonna be okay, right?” she asked.

“Yeah sweetie,” Felicia said. “Daddy’s gonna be just fine…”

————

Bobby sighed as he shut the padded door, a phone under one arm instead of his daughter. He swore this time he’d give them a piece of his…

“Guys?” he asked casually but authoritatively. “What have I told you about calling me at home and at work?”

“Uhhh… not to do it?”

“Exactly. So tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure today?”

“Well what do you expect Bobby? You tell us we can’t call you at home, we can’t call you at work… how the hell else we supposed to call you?”

“You’re not. We’ve had this conversation before… how many times now?” Bobby said impatiently. “I’m out. Done. Finished. One hundred percent bona-fide. Understand?”

“Bobby… come on, man! We need you! The pack needs you!”

“And so do my wife and my little girl!” Bobby hissed. “But I don’t see you sayin’ shit about them!”

“They ain’t part of the pack, Bobby. They ain’t got history like we do. They don’t understand you the way we do.”

“If you really understood you’d stop fucking calling,” Bobby said. Sighing, he slouched against the soft walls of the padded room. “So what’s this about?”

“You’ll help us? You’re gonna come back?!”

“No, I’m just interested is all. Don’t go barking up the wrong tree.”

He listened in as the voice patiently explained what had happened. And at the end of it…

“Yamadas? Who the fuck are they? I thought you said the yakuza was working with the Marquis? What do you mean they are? You just said they tried to kill each other! And what the fuck happened to the philosopher’s stone?”

He groaned. This was a mess…

“Okay, okay. One thing at a time. Let me see what I can do about this. I’m not coming back, but I might be able to get you some help. Organize a uhhh… liaison with the Allesandris,” he said patiently. “Just one thing first. You’re sure this was Marquis on the train, and not one of his brothers? He didn’t like, arrange to have this happen or anything, right?”

The voice replied. Bobby waited for it to finish in sullen silence.

Dammit Sostene…

“Oh, what? No, it’s nothing,” he said to the voice on the line. “Just looks like our mutual friend Sostene ‘the Dream’ Caputo gave me some false information is all. Yeah, I’ll look into it. Alright. I said alright! Now stop fucking calling me!”

The frustrated lycan slammed the receiver back into the handles that caressed it, cracking the casing. Out of options, he buried his head in his legs, adopting the same pose his daughter did when she was trying to hide.

“Just when I thought I was out…” he muttered. “Fuck me…”

And fuck the Marquis too. Shit like this…

He stared at the door, the border-line where his peaceful life as a family man and slightly crooked cop resumed. Shit like this could fill a stable. Only he was no Heracles.

“Sorry, Mary…” he said to himself. “Daddy’s gotta go to work again…”

Previous || Next

RE: URGENT UPDATE

So I just got out of the hospital today after my surgery on Friday, and… well there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is… it’s not over yet. While the surgeon in charge of my biopsy initially thought we wouldn’t need to schedule a second operation, as the mass appeared to be fluid-filled and would just be drained while they took a tissue sample, after cutting me open we learned that the mass is in fact complex, and couldn’t be removed this time because it is filled largely tissue (thymus tissue, in fact). This means that, depending on the results of the biopsy, I might need to have an even more invasive surgery done to remove it if shrinking it with medication doesn’t seem possible.

The good news though is, as I alluded to above, the fact that we finally know more about what this mass is. They called it “thymus hyperplasia”, meaning that the thymus gland, which usually decomposes into adipose (fatty) tissue after puberty, never stopped growing in my case and has likely been there for years. This also means it’s almost certainly not harmful beyond what current discomfort it’s already been causing me. We’ll know more in a few days once the test results come in.

So that’s really all I have to offer after a month of waiting: The Adventure Continues. Honestly, I really hope this will all be over soon.

 

 

Urgent Update: Please Read

Okay, so I was hoping I could put off saying this, but since it’s been like two weeks since my last insubstantial post, I feel like I’d be leaving a lot of people hanging without justification if I didn’t explain what’s been going on. You may remember that the day after my last post, I went to visit my family physician, hoping they could assist with this persistent cough I’ve had since early November. What they found was… disturbing.

First they ordered an X-ray and some bloodwork, standard practice. When the X-ray came back displaying an indistinct abnormality in my thoracic cavity, they ferried me on over to another clinic for more bloodwork and a CT scan, hoping that would tell them what was wrong with me. As it turns out, I have a large mass just behind my sternum that’s restricting my breathing. How big is it? About the size of a hackey-sack or a small baseball, and contrary to what they first told me, the CT scan seems to show that it’s not just pushing against my trachea,  but pinching it to half its normal diameter while also forcing it a few inches to one side of my chest. It’s big is the point, and I’ve taken to calling it silly things like “Giger” and “Quatto” to lighten the mood.

As far as they can tell, my bosom buddy is complex but mostly fluid-filled, with a bit of solid tissue in the middle. What that fluid is or even what kind of mass this is (cyst, abscess, tumor, or something else) is something they still can’t tell me, so I’m scheduled to have a biopsy done after a hematology consult to make sure I haven’t inherited my father’s clotting disorder. The procedure sounds like it’ll have to be invasive (moreso than a needle anyway) due to the location of the mass, so they thought it would be a good idea to play it safe, since it’s located right next to a vein. I’ll have to miss work to spend a few days in the hospital, and then a few more when I return to have it drained/removed/whatever they plan on doing to it.

Good news is, the fact that my bloodwork is normal and they still don’t have a clue what it is even after a CT scan makes me believe it probably isn’t a tumor (malignant or otherwise). As it stands right now, I’m a bit of a medical oddity, and I’ve got an interesting couple weeks ahead of me. So if you’ve been wondering why you haven’t heard anything from me for the past couple weeks, it’s because a squishy alien is trying to strangle me from the inside in the slowest, most passive-aggressive way possible. Truly a death fit for a Minnesotan, I suppose.

Anyway, I’ll try to resume my writing from the hospital or whenever it becomes convenient, but for now I’ve got a lot on my plate dealing with the real world, and you might not hear from me for a while. I apologize for not informing everyone sooner. I was hoping to get the next chapter done by now and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to tell everyone this, but as you can see I’ve clearly been distracted and I figured now was as good a time as any to inform everyone of my condition before people start wondering where I’ve disappeared to.

Update: Hey guys

So New Years’ has come and gone, and while I hope you all had a great time, I’m sorry to say there isn’t going to be a new chapter just yet. While I have another snippet for you to chew on (this one is more of a teaser than a sample chapter or a pilot), things have been a little too busy for me to sit down and write a chapter up until now. I’ve just gotten back from my extended family’s late Christmas celebration in Iowa though and my doctor’s appointment is tomorrow, so after that I’ll be able to sit down and write again without any distractions (or at least fewer distractions). In the meantime though, this is all I’ve got for you:

The Sixth

It’s been almost two years.

Nobody remembers how it happened, exactly. How it all came crashing down. Some say the nukes were launched by terroristic metas. Others will tell you the nukes were launched in response to terroristic metas, or in anticipation of terroristic metas, or that they were the result of tensions between the world’s biggest geopolitical superpowers finally boiling over, now that they had to compete for control over people with real superpowers. Maybe someone just pushed the button a little too early by mistake and everybody else followed suit.

It was all of these things. It was none of these things. The truth doesn’t matter. It’s not what people are going to remember, and certainly not what we care about now. Whether the history books jot it down as the work of aliens, the secret world government or freaking Skynet, the effect was the exact opposite of the cause. Clear, concise. Undeniable. On October 15th, 20XX, five months after the spontaneous metahuman event known as “the Sixth Age”, it finally happened.

World War Fucking Three.

Nobody knew how to respond to it. The Sixth Age made 63 million people, almost a whole singular percentage of humanity, suddenly develop superpowers. Chaos ensued as soon as people started to become aware of what these powers were capable of. Death, destruction, mass hysteria. The world tore itself apart. Eventually, there was only one solution to it all. The bombs dropped like rain.

Fifteen thousand tactical nuclear warheads killed 600 million in the first week, almost ten percent of the world population. Of those, two hundred and fifty million were claimed by the radioactive fallout alone. Later on, with the remaining population beginning to suffer from the effects of disease, injury, infection, starvation, and dehydration, we began to suspect the death toll would continue rising until it hit a billion. Further deaths would almost certainly occur in the immediate days following the collapse of civilized global society, many of them human on meta or meta on meta, but after the death toll surpasses one billion people, what’s the point in even counting anymore? It’s utterly unimaginable. A scenario even the word “megadeath” fails to encapsulate. Society crumbling at our feet, burying the feeble, the helpless.

But it was far from the end. Human civilization would recover. Not today, not tomorrow, not in my lifetime or yours. But eventually. Whether in five hundred years or five thousand, we’d be back. Perhaps different; perhaps we’d all become metas. Wouldn’t that be a sight to see? Until that promised day then, we’ll just have to keep doing what we do best.

Survive.

This isn’t the end for us, but it isn’t a new beginning either. If anyone ever tries to sell you that Hollywood movie trailer crap, I suggest punching them in the face (or maybe even aim lower). It’s just a change. That’s all it is. The age of humanity giving way to an age of metahumanity. Hi-powered businessmen and executive types would refer to it as a “paradigm shift”. Some of the raider groups we’ve encountered would rather it be called “the natural order”.

The post-apocalypse is mostly ruled by raider gangs and their metahuman warlords these days. Just a bunch of loosely connected tribes and militias, same as ours, only with more human headhunting and slavery. They believe baseline humans are inferior to metas, that we should all be wiped out to prevent us from further polluting their gene pool. They seem to think that metahumans are the next evolutionary step for humanity, willfully ignoring how evolution actually works as long as it suits their purposes. On the other end of the spectrum is us, the fools who are still trying to rebuild the old world rather than embrace the new.

Baltia. A city named for its trees (and known for little else) that went largely unnoticed by the bombs due to being in close proximity to practically nothing of strategic value besides a decommissioned Air Force base and a partially empty Nike missile silo. In the days before the war, we produced tree sap, varnish and maple syrup, hence the name. Nowadays, we produce roofs, walls, food, running water, electricity, weapons, everything you need to stay alive. And soldiers. We produce a lot of them too. We’re the last bastion of organized, civilized society on the Canadian/US border. Our militia, built from the ground up using the staff still on duty at the base when the bombs hit as well as the most able-bodied of the townsfolk, is one of the biggest we’ve yet encountered, and we’ve survived by making ourselves out to be one of the meanest.

We call ourselves Baltia’s Brotherhood. Not the Brotherhood of Steel or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, just the Brotherhood (perhaps to invoke the image of a band of brothers, fighting side by side). Don’t let the name fool you, we have plenty of sisters fighting on the frontlines too. My whole damn squadron is led by a ladydude in fact, a particularly fierce bitch who goes by the name “Raijin” when she’s on the clock, and Major when she’s not. I’ve never heard anyone in our squadron call her by her first or real name. I know she has to have one, but after calling her “Major” for so long the idea of her having any other name seems absurd.

By now you might be guessing I’m a military man, what with all this talk about nukes, squadrons and militias. You’d be right on one account, and wrong on so many others. I am a militia soldier. I signed up so I could have a job as a radio operator for the Brotherhood. I had a GDE and AV training, and I thought it’d help me earn my keep here in Baltia. Plus it seemed like a nice, safe, cushy position far away from any potential fighting that may be going on.

So I applied, got the job, and I worked there doing that for about my first year in Baltia, six months after the bombs dropped and we’d all gotten settled in and accepted the new reality. It seemed like my plan to live a nice, comfortable life in the military was going to be a success. Up until two months ago. When I found out I was a fucking Sixth.

Let me be clear about this. I never asked for this, I never wanted this. Even assuming I got totally badass, super-cool powers like the Major, I would’ve rather just kept on living the boring, uneventful life of a radio operator (as boring as you can possibly make living in the post-apocalyptic Canadian wasteland anyway). But no. Destiny, God, the world, or whoever made the Sixth Age happen, had different fucking plans for me. And if I’d known, I think I would’ve just stuck with being a fallout farmer.


Happy 2017, everyone!

A Look Into Another World: (Wo)Man on the Moon

“Bleh!”

The onna-bugeisha ran her sword through the darkly-clad Kaguya-hime. Her victory assured, she drove the blade deep into Kaguya-hime’s heart.

“I hoped, and I prayed, that you were not the she-devil you appeared to be. But it’s true, isn’t it? I was right all along. You intended to destroy us didn’t you, star princess?!”

The princess of Mikado stared through her with piercing black eyes. “Heh. Was I really so obvious?”

Kaguya-hime coughed up another quart of blood as the onna-bugeisha twisted her magic sword into her chest.

“It’s over, Kaguya. Whatever your demented plan may truly be, I won’t let you see it to fruition. You die here!”

Kaguya-hime laughed; a low, deranged chuckle.

“The plan is already a failure. But thankfully, I’ll have another chance to try again. When the earth matches the heavens..”

The onna-bugeisha delivered another swift thrust into Kaguya-hime’s soft bosom, rupturing her silky skin which was as white as the full moon that hung overhead.

“What chance do you have? I told you. Tonight, these grassy fields are where you die!”

“Khekekek… perhaps. But perhaps not.”

There was a high-pitched noise. As if on cue, the silver vessel with which Kaguya-hime had attempted to return to her lunar kingdom exploded, bursting into flames and blossoming like a volcano. Fire fell from the sky in hot chunks, starting a conflagration in the fields and grasslands, and washing the honorable onna-bugeisha in hot orange fire-light. Shards of white-hot lightning buzzed like angry hornets as they flew past her, and one hit her on the left side of her face, ripping a hole in her cheek with its stinger and burning her mouth.

She screamed in agony. Taking advantage of her distraction, Kaguya-hime rolled over and pinned her to the ground, forcing herself on top of her. The scalding stone settling beneath her tongue, the onna-bugeisha grimaced. Surely now the evil witch would choke the life out of her. But instead, Kaguya-hime kissed the honorable onna-bugeisha, filling her nostrils with the sickeningly sweet scent of peaches and making her body go limp. After a long and passionate embrace, Kaguya-hime released the onna-bugeisha as she wiped saliva from her lips, the look on her face triumphant.

What is this? the onna-bugeisha thought. Why can’t I move?!

“Are you perhaps wondering what’s happened to your body? My lipstick is filled with a special poison that paralyzes you completely, a neurotoxin that traps the victim inside their own body,” she said, spitting crimson saliva. “I have imprisoned you, samurai, the same way I once was. Now you too will feel what it is like to live out the rest of your days as a shadow of your former self, unable to move, unable to speak. Unable to die.”

With a grunt of effort, Kaguya-hime pulled the sacred and magical sword from her chest, and laid it at the side of the onna-bugeisha who was as still as the winter air. Almost immediately the wound closed, leaving nought but a hole in her clothes and a smidgeon of blood as proof that Kaguya-hime had ever once been dead.

“My cellular matrix regenerates at an astonishing speed, doesn’t it?” she said, addressing the look of bewilderment on the onna-bugeisha’s face. “They don’t call it the elixir of life for nothing, I suppose. But don’t worry. I shall be sure to preserve you as well. You’ll get to live out every year of my punishment together with me as we both grow old. The only difference is, well, I’ll have to travel the long way. You on the other hand just get to go to sleep, never to awake again. Dreaming for all eternity. Now doesn’t that sound nice?”

The onna-bugeisha tried to scream, to curse Kaguya-hime with every last scrap of strength in her body, but the burning stone and the poison that was slowly retarding her every muscle reduced her protests to nothing but slurred wails, cries fit only for a child. And as she felt darkness overtake her, that was what the onna-bugeisha became. Nothing but a crying child.

Kaguya-hime looked down on her.

“Sweet dreams, princess…

The onna-bugeisha screamed, jolted awake by the horrible memories of a night long since past. Her breath materialized in front of her, obscuring her view and making the air around her mouth hot and humid like a summer mist. She found herself lying on her back on some sort of mat, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling. There was a mask made of some kind of… flexible glass around her mouth. And tubes, in her mouth and all around her body, attached to her with needles. What were these strange instruments? What were they for?!

Where… was she?

A sharp chirping noise startled her, and she felt the needles in her skin twitch as she jumped involuntarily. Her heart raced. The noise was coming from some kind of moving painting attached to the bed where she lay. It was made up of all jagged lines in various colors, annotated with glyphs from a language she didn’t understand. The lines… mimicked her heartbeat. She then noticed that she had been restrained, and dressed in some sort of strange garment.

The persistent questions of “what is this for” and “what do they plan on doing to me” were all that remained in her thoughts as the bizarre devices around her continued to chirp and beep. For there was a “they”, or at least a “them”. Kaguya. Someone had captured her while she was immobile, and if she was willing to bet, they were Kaguya’s twisted servants of some sort. Only she in her infinite devilry had access to this kind of technology. These devices which far surpassed the understanding of man, like her flying machine.

That’s when it occurred to the onna-bugeisha. They had seen fit to restrain her. Did that mean… she was able to move? Had Kaguya’s poison worn off?

Experimentally, she twitched one of her fingers in a way invisible to anyone who might be watching. She would assume nothing with Kaguya. Finding that she had at least regained motion in her extremities, she wiggled a few toes, and finally tried tensing the muscles in her arms and legs, tightening them. They felt painfully withered and disused. Slow and unresponsive, but still moving. How long had she been under the spell of Kaguya’s twisted magic?

A door the likes of which she’d never seen swung open on a hinge in a way it would never have been constructed in the palace of the Emperor, and two, no, three figures masked in shadow entered the room, followed by a fourth. The onna-bugeisha was perfectly still.

“As you can see, we have the subject sedated and restrained,” a bug-eyed man in a white haori with many pockets said. In the eyes of the onna-bugeisha, he looked like a demon, or perhaps a shinigami dressed all in white. “Initially we had thought her muscular system to be compromised, but after running the usual array of diagnostic tests and medical exams, we found she was still completely intact. Zero loss in muscle mass, can you believe that? It appears her preservation was even more miraculous than we had first thought.”

No, something feels wrong, she thought. This is nothing like how I can usually move. I feel so slow, so weak… dammit, what did you do to me?

She looked around the room.

“Ah, she’s waking up! Good morning, my lost little princess. How are we today?”

She didn’t answer, playing into the illusion that she couldn’t. She didn’t know what “sedated” meant, but they obviously didn’t expect her to be able to move. Even though they had restrained her, but those straps would come undone if she just forced them, she felt.

“Can she actually hear you?” one of them asked.

“Perhaps, but I doubt she’s in any stable frame of mind to understand it. We have her under pretty deep.”

So I am underground? she thought. Am I in some sort of cave?

By some utter miracle, her sword had been laid out for her on a table in the far corner of the room. That sword was the one thing in this room she was familiar with. Nothing about this place made sense to her, so she had to escape. She could collect her thoughts and figure out where she had been taken once she was free.

“If I remember correctly, you said the woman herself was incidental to this project, correct? Her stasis is the real object of study. You only revived her to study the effects such a long sleep might have on a person.”

“Hmm? Yes, why do you ask?”

“Because the boss wants her disposed of, effective immediately. As soon as you’re sure we can’t learn anything else from her, terminate her. Those were the orders from up above.”

“What!?” the white demon exclaimed. “Why?!”

“I don’t know. Those are just the orders.”

Waiting for the lull in the conversation to end, the onna-bugeisha tested the limits of the straps, and found they strained easily under even a fraction of her strength. Which was great, because a fraction seemed to be all she could muster.

“I dunno, if it were me I’d really like to see what she has to say,” the fourth one mentioned. “Maybe she has something worthwhile to offer to us. To history at least.”

“Don’t be stupid. What could an ass-backwards time traveller have that we would possibly want? She’s-”

“Hey, did she just move?” one of the darkly clad figures asked, pointing at her. She immediately became still again. The demon in white stared at her for a moment.

“Hmmm… don’t be ridiculous, Mr. Isaac. We have her restrained with heavy-duty g-bracers, and sedated with over five milligrams of self-modulating nanoanesthetics. There’s no way she could even move a finger. Now please, I strongly wish that you’d reconsider. Terminating her at this point just seems so unnecessary!”

His name was “Mr. Isaac”? The onna-bugeisha had no idea what those words meant. She’d never heard a language like that before. Was he a foreigner, or was this just the language of demons? Yet he spoke Japanese. They all did. Some strange, almost unintelligible dialect of Japanese, but it was her mother tongue without a doubt.

“I agree,” said the fourth, a much younger voice she noticed. “What’s the harm in keeping her alive?”

“Ughhh…” the man groaned, turning his back to her. “Matsu, would you just shut the fuck up and stop making my life difficult? If the CEO of the company says terminate her, you terminate her! Don’t ask questions!”

Now!

“Do you want me to put in a recommendation for your demotion?” he said. “Because I can certainly-”

The onna-bugeisha lunged, ripping through the restraints as if they were paper. In one smooth motion she snatched a syringe from the table by her bed and vaulted off the cot, hooking one arm around the one called “Mr. Isaac” and jamming the needle into the soft flesh of his neck. She didn’t know what the liquid inside was for necessarily, but a child could tell you that if you pushed down on the metal plate sticking out this thing, it would force the liquid out through the needle and into the man’s neck. That couldn’t be good for anyone.

After the shock of realizing she could move started wearing off, the men started to panic, and one of them tried to make a break for it, an act the onna-bugeisha interpreted as aggressive.

“Stop!” she said, not sure if they understood her or not. “If you try to move, this man is dead. I could kill him in a hundred ways right now if I wanted to.”

“You bitch…” her hostage choked.

“How… how is she doing that?” the demon in white asked. “Nobody should be able to move under that much anesthetic! And those straps were made of latticed graphene! They’re stronger than reinforced kevlar!”

The onna-bugeisha slowly backed away towards her sword. Once it was in arm’s reach she grabbed it and tossed the man aside before making a break for the door.

Kaguya… she’s responsible! If I can find her-!

But her righteous fury ended as soon as she barged through the large metal doors marked “emergency exit”. When she saw what the world she’d been spirited away into really looked like.

“What…” her voice quivered, the cold night air striking the bare flesh beneath the thin hospital gown. It felt like her world. Of that there was no mistake. The sensation of walking barefoot through the courtyard of the imperial palace on a crisp summer’s eve was a memory so deeply ingrained into her mind that it would be impossible to forget. But this was not the imperial palace. This was not Kyoto. This was something else entirely. This was a nightmare.

All around her, men with metal arms and machines sticking out of the back of their heads roamed the streets, flanked on all sides by tsukumogami in the shape of porcelain dolls or mannequins, their insectile articulated joints clicking as they walked. Their faces had an obvious air of unreality about them, like a sculpted thing too perfect to actually exist, which contrasted sharply with the metallic amalgams of men she saw around her, their flesh mutilated by machines whose functions she could only begin to guess at. It looked as though they’d been merged with some of the strange tools she’d seen in that medical oubliette.

She looked around. Everywhere she looked things were different and strange, a grotesque parody of the world she’d left behind. Carriages pulled themselves along without horses, belching smoke like bellows. Giant metal snakes crawled like silkworms along branches that wrapped around and went through entire buildings, each as large as a castle and many times as tall. Some of them were even made from blown glass. There were lights and sounds she did not know originating from sources she didn’t dare guess at, and so many of them that they crowded out the senses, daring one to go mad. But the most shocking revelation occurred when she dared to look up.

The night sky was devoid of stars.

She dropped to her knees. How could this be? Was she so far from home that the light of the stars that shone above the palace simply could not reach her? Or was she in hell, her soul claimed by Kaguya’s foul magics? That seemed infinitely more likely as a white dragon soared above her, bisecting the sky with its ghostly red lights. The entire night sky looked like it was burning.

“I know this must come as quite a shock to you,” a voice she did not recognize tried to console her. She whipped around. Another demon stood before her, this one an empty suit of armor. At least, she thought it was armor. It spoke to her. “I am truly sorry for what you’ve lost, but we’re running out of time. They’ll be coming for you any minute now.”

She sneered. “Leave me be, demon. I have enough problems without having to listen to you.”

“And that’s why I’m here,” it said. “To help you solve those problems. To help you find a way back home, or… something like it, at least.”

“And why on earth would a demon want to do that?” she accused.

“Because I have a vested interest in seeing justice done to our mutual acquaintance.”

She turned around to look at it, suddenly taking what it said very seriously. “How do you know Kaguya?”

More men with machines crammed into their heads spilled out the door, chasing her with weapons that looked like nothing she’d ever seen before. She only knew they were weapons from the way they carried them. The armor stood between her and them, its chest opening invitingly.

“We should go. I think you and I have a lot to discuss.”

She nodded. The men yelled “open fire!” and flashes of bright light burst forth from the black objects they held in their hands. The onna-bugeisha jumped inside the armor, the chestplate sealing her inside.

“Hold on tight. I’ll take you where we need to go.”

The armor leapt into the sky, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop. The onna-bugeisha stared down at the city below, entranced by the garish festival nightmare in which she now found herself. It was then that she realized, bathed in the light of the crescent moon, that she hadn’t gone anywhere. It was the world that had changed. She had been left behind. Just as Kaguya said. For how long… she didn’t know.

Her last thoughts before she drifted off to sleep in the armor’s embrace consisted of one simple word, burning with salt and vinegar.
Kaguya…

Street Lawyer 5.11

Previous || Next

What we found in that cell resembled the fiery bearcat of a woman I’d come to know and begrudgingly tolerate about as much as roadkill resembled an opossum. “Worked over” would’ve been a gross understatement. She looked like nothing less than the underworld warmed over, which raised a couple of very disturbing questions. Were the Untouchables really so well-equipped that they could do this to a high-class demigod like Nayeli? And worse, what in the hell would Marq do to them if he ever got the chance?

“Heheh…” Marq giggled softly to my astonishment. His fingers were splayed across the invisible barrier between them like a gecko, trying desperately to find any sort of purchase or point of entry.

“Boss?” she croaked. I wasn’t sure if she was asking if he was okay, or if she was so beat up she only just realized we were there.

“Nayeli,” he said, smiling and swallowing softly. “I want to know who did this to you. Do you have any names? Can you tell me what they looked like?”

Soft tears trickled down his cheeks. Right then, I was considering taking a step back. I’ve seen Marq mad. I’ve seen him furious. I’ve seen him scream and cuss so loud you’d think he was trying to wake up a dead dog. This wasn’t like that. I’d never, ever seen this. This was anger transmuted.

It was then I realized he’d already reached his boiling point the moment we’d stepped foot on this island. Everything since then had just been steam building up inside him, pressure rising with every new injustice he imagined. Seeing it now, that anger had crossed a new threshold, building up so violently inside him that what was hot just became cold. He’d gone so far in one direction he’d ended up right back where he started, or someplace like it. Except now he was like a spring-loaded knife, or a coiled viper. One wrong move and he’d just snap, and when he did, someone was gonna bleed. I was determined to not be that guy.

“Boss…” Nayeli croaked. “I didn’t… it wasn’t-”

“Nayeli, it’s okay,” Marq said, putting away all his questions for now. “I’m just glad you’re back home. You’re safe.

Nayeli collapsed on the other side of the glass-like barrier, sobbing like a child. The prodigal daughter returned to us and Marq hadn’t even bothered to mention how much she’d made him worry or how her actions may have affected the family. She was forgiven in his eyes. The two of them tried to approximate a hug without actually being able to touch each other, a gesture I would’ve laughed at if I hadn’t known who these two were.

After a few moments of quiet sobbing and consolations, Marq approached the subject again.

“Nayeli, who did this to you? Was it the Untouchables?” he said. His voice was gentle but his intentions were deadly sharp, like a knife.

She nodded. “They caught me in California. I… don’t actually remember what happened. I just know it was them. I remember their voices.”

“Voices?” Marq asked. “You remember what they said? Did they read you your rights?”

She shook her head. “It’s not like that. I don’t know…” She sighed, angry with herself. “I don’t know how to fucking explain it, it’s like I remember the sound of their voices, but every time I try to remember what they said it’s all just… garbage. Crap. I can’t understand it, it’s like they’re whispering or muttering.”

I looked at Marq. “You think they used some sorta magic to, y’know… erase her memory?”

I had no clue how you’d go about doing that, but I was pretty sure it was possible. It could be done without magic, if you were willing to risk serious brain damage. Stands to reason you could do it with magic too, and probably a lot more precisely.

Thankfully Marq seemed to agree with me, which spared me the embarrassment of admitting I hadn’t been keeping up with all my studying like he’d wanted.

“Seems likely,” he said. “I know a couple ways you could do it. In theory, anyway. But they’re all pretty complicated. It takes a pretty intricate ritual to dig your fingers into someone’s grey matter, and you’d need an expert to perform it step-by-step if you wanted to remove any specific memories instead of just blasting an entire day or month from your brain. It wouldn’t be an easy process is my point. I mean if it was, we’d be doing it already.”

“Those fuckers…” Nayeli whispered. “They were inside my head… those fuckers…!

She’d curled up into a ball without me noticing. The notion of someone toying with her memories clearly didn’t sit well with her.

Like it’d sit well for anyone… I thought.

She looked up, suddenly seeming like she’d thought of something very important. “Boss, we were really… we’re still… right? They didn’t make that up, right?

Her tone of voice was urgent, and she looked about ready to cry again. The thought of being apart from Marq, or worse, the thought of all the time they’d spent together being nothing but fake memories, had clearly settled in. Paranoia was probably the rational response here, after all. We had no idea what they’d done to her. She already seemed like a reflection of her former self.

Marq smiled gently. “No Nayeli, those aren’t fake. They’re real. They happened. Don’t let this make you think otherwise. I still love you. I’ve always loved you. And we’re gonna find out the truth. If we can prove they tampered with your memories, it might give us an edge in the upcoming case.”

“How?” I asked.

“Memory alteration is a class B magic, Al. Even using it for therapeutic purposes is illegal. Sanctity of memory and the protection of your mental faculties is considered a basic right of life for everyone, even criminals.”

“No, I mean,” I said, being patient with him. “How are we gonna prove it? You said it yourself, memory magic is complicated. Besides, she’s inside an atelier. What are we gonna do from out here?”

He smiled reassuringly, although there was something bitter in his usual triumphant grin. “We don’t need magic, Al. Just a good ol’ fashioned party trick.”

He pulled his pocketwatch out of his jacket and swung it around like a pendulum.

“Hypnosis?” I asked.

“Post-hypnotic memory recall, actually,” Marq said. “I read about it once. Apparently the shrinks think you can use hypnosis to trigger repressed memories. I thought we’d give it a try.”

“Might work,” I said, shrugging. Marq blew me off with a chuff.

Will work,” he said. It’s got to, is what I imagined he was thinking. He turned to Nayeli. “Alright Nayeli, I need you to lie down on your back.”

Nayeli didn’t really agree to it at first, I could tell. The idea of someone, anyone digging around in her skull so soon after the last time, even if it was Marq, upset her. To her, her mind probably already felt fragile enough. It’s not that she didn’t trust his intentions, she just didn’t trust him to not cock it up.

But eventually she did exactly as she was told, following his lead more out of faith than anything else, and I began to wonder. Maybe she wasn’t afraid of Marq making a mistake. Maybe she was afraid of what she might remember. After all, it could just be simple paranoia on the part of the Untouchables, a desire to leave out any potential loose ends, or perhaps even a mercy to make her forget the pain of the beating, but you generally didn’t bother to erase someone’s memories without having a good reason. And usually, that reason was you did something that you didn’t want anyone else to remember. Something that had to be pretty fucking awful.

A number of delightful scenarios entered my head, and I knew they’d seem just as unpleasant to Nayeli if she was imagining them just then. The best we could hope for was just a history of her bruises. The worst could help us build a case, but… well, I hope Marq understood that it wouldn’t be worth it. Still, he seemed determined to find out the truth.

I put a hand on his shoulder.

“I think I’m having second thoughts about this, Marq.”

“Oh yeah?” he asked. “Why’s that?”

“I mean…” I struggled to find the words. “You know this is just gonna hurt her, right? What if she doesn’t want to relive those memories? What if they’re bad?

I stressed that last part, thinking it was important he understood “bad” meant more than just physical pain or injury.

He looked at me sternly. “Al, we have to know the truth. We have to know who did this to her.”

“Why?” I asked. “So you can get revenge? Doesn’t that seem… selfish?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean, Al?”

Marq’s gaze was so cold it made me flinch. He made it clear I was pushing my luck. But for now, I still had the right to speak.

I chose my words carefully. “I mean… are you really sure you wanna put her through this, whatever happened to her, again? I’m not saying anything did happen to her, whatever that may be, but do you really wanna hurt her just for your own self-satisfaction?”

Marq grit his teeth, raising his voice. “She has to know, Al! Do you think there’s any other choice?! If anything happened,” he said, the potential implications of that word hurting him so much it showed in his voice, “then they happened. We can’t undo it just by ignoring it. If anything that means they’ll just get away with it and we’ll have nothing to use against them in court! She deserves to know.”

“You mean you do,” I said, then immediately regretted saying anything. Marq looked at me, utterly desperate and more unstable than I’ve ever seen him, and I quickly began to backtrack. “Look, all I’m saying is that this should be her decision. If you-”

“If I really love her, yeah… I know,” Marq said, taking a deep breath. This was difficult for him. Difficult for me too, but I suspect for vastly different reasons. He looked at Nayeli.

“Nayeli… doll… do you want me to do this?” he asked. “If you really don’t want me to…”

She shook her head. “No, you were right. I wanna know what those bastards did to me. Just promise me that… if it’s that… it won’t change how we-”

Her voice croaked as she tried to swallow that bitter pill.

“No. God no,” Marq said, forehead pressed up against the glass. “But it won’t be that. I know it won’t. And no matter what it is, whether they beat you with sticks or just tickled you until you passed out, I’m going to make sure they regret it. You hear me Nayeli? They’re gonna fucking pay, no matter who they are or what they did.”

Nayeli nodded without saying anything, and laid back down.

I didn’t know exactly what they meant when they so artfully dodged around the subject by using the word “it”, but I could guess. But why would they think the Untouchables would do that to anyone? Mickey Donahue was one thing, but not them. Corrupt cops they may be, but I don’t think they’d ever go that far. Unless Marq had a reason to suspect they would, but that equally didn’t make any sense. Still, like I said, there weren’t many reasons to use memory alteration magic that weren’t… unpleasant.

The pocketwatch pivoted back and forth, its clock-like motion captivating as it wove arcs through the air. Marq gave her the usual set of instructions used in stage hypnosis, then waited until she’d fallen asleep, deep into a trance.

“Now Nayeli, I want you to describe for me what happened when you were… attacked,” Marq said, hesitating. “Tell me everything you remember. Did you see your attacker’s faces? What did they look like? Did you hear any names? Tell me what they did to you.”

I could hear him grinding his teeth as he said that. Then, as soon as he stopped, Nayeli began to speak.

Her story was a lot like what we’d been expecting, with a few extra twists. The invisible city-sized blimp kinda threw me for a loop. But so far there was nothing that suggested they’d done anything worthy of memory alteration. Had they only been trying to protect state secrets like that ziggurat?

“Alright,” Marq said. “Can you remember anything else after you blacked out?”

“Yeah…” she said drowsily. The words tumbled out of her mouth the same way a sleepwalker talks. “They’re taking me up… into the floating city. They’re taking me… to meet someone.”

“Who?” Marq asked patiently.

“I can’t tell,” Nayeli mumbled. “It… looks like a man. I can only see his back but he’s turning around. He-”

And then she just stopped, mouth still open, lips quivering. Concerned, Marq leaned in closer.

“Nayeli?”

“I can see.. His eyes…” Nayeli said, a steady drip of panic flooding her calm voice. “His eyes… Marq, I can’t… I can’t see his eyes! They’re black! His eyes are black!”

Marq jumped on that. “Black eyes? Is he a demon?”

“No,” she said. “Not black like that. Black like… like space. Like an endless pit but with no stars. There’s nothing. There’s just nothing! No light, no pupils, no eyelids! All I see is black! He doesn’t have a soul!”

Nayeli started writhing on the dirt floor of her cell, her own eyes closed, twitching. Marq rushed over and pressed his hands against the barrier.

“Nayeli? Nayeli listen to me! You’re okay! What’s he doing? What’s going on?”

“He’s coming towards me!” she said. “He’s just… walking through the gravity, like it means nothing! Make him go away, Marq! Make him go away!”

Her convulsions started pressing against the barrier, shaking the space in her cell with the unrestrained strength of a fearful demigoddess.

“It’s okay Nayeli, he’s not really there!” Marq shouted. “Tell me what you see!

“He’s reaching out!” she yelled back from across the veil. “He’s trying to touch me! His fingers… they’re so cold! I can feel them on my face like a blizzard! No… no! Stay back! Get away from me! Get away!

Then, like a snapping piece of wood, Nayeli’s back arched sharply, her mouth stretched wide open into a scream like nothing I’ve ever heard. The noise must have been tuned for us by the barrier, because inside the volume of her agony was reducing what little adorned her cell into powderized atoms, smoothing the walls into an inoffensive dark slab of polished rock. But I could hear her. I could hear her all the same, and the sounds she made weren’t human. They sounded like an animal being tortured, like a monkey in the cold hands of a probing scientist being pricked and stabbed with needles. Whatever it was, it wasn’t touching her body. Something was touching her mind.

And then she stopped, collapsing to the floor. We both stared, shocked into silence. Marq was the first to react.

“Nayeli…” he said, clamoring against the barrier. “Nayeli wake up! It’s over! None of it was real! Someone get this cell open!

I stared at her. “What the fuck was that?

Marq, however, didn’t share my confusion. He was too busy seeing to Nayeli. Her eyes flickered open.

“Oh thank god,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Nayeli are you okay? What happened back there? Do you need to talk about it? What am I saying, of course you do…”

He fumbled for something to comfort her with before remembering nothing but light and sound could pass through the barrier. Nayeli just looked at him, confused.

“What are you talking about, boss?” she asked. “Talk about what?”

He stopped. I chimed in.

“Uhhh… your memories? The little episode you just had where you tried to burst God’s eardrum?”

She scowled. “Stop giving me shit, you little shit. What are you talking about?”

I tried to ignore how irritating it was that she was calling me that too now. “You mean you literally don’t remember? Not a thing you said, not even destroying your cell?

“What do you mean-” She stopped and looked behind her, shocked once she saw her new interior decorations. “I did that?

I huddled over to Marq, and whispered in his ear.

“Marq, what the fuck is going on? She doesn’t remember anything!”

But he didn’t say anything. Didn’t even look my way. Just kept staring straight ahead, like he’d remembered something himself. Something important.

“Marq?” I asked. “Pal? You look like you got something to say.”

I waited for him to start talking. When he didn’t, that’s when I knew shit was going to get really fucked up really fast.

“… Please say yes. Please? Just for me?” I tried to negotiate. “Because that freaked me the fuck out just now, and if you don’t start explaining shit I think I’m just gonna start sweating.”

Marq not taking the role of the little exposition gnome to dump the magic knowledge on me at times like this was something that was really, really unsettling. It meant he either didn’t know, or didn’t want to. Either option scared me.

“Al,” he said softly, wetting his dry lips. “I don’t know about you, but… I’ve seen a face like that before.”

“What, like old Black Eyes?”

“No, Al. Not a demon,” he said. “A fae.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “Shit.”

It was quickly becoming clear Nayeli’s captors hadn’t erased her memories to cover up them doing unspeakable things to her or anything else like that. The violence clearly wasn’t the part they’d cared about. I imagined they’d admit to torturing her without shame if they’d actually done it. No, Nayeli had been silenced because she’d seen too fucking much.

“Marq,” I said, trying to take a deep breath. “Please tell me you know what the fuck’s going on, because I don’t.

“Me?” he replied back. “Not a clue.”

Nayeli looked at us funny. “Boss? What’s going on?”

Marq tried explaining it to her. Me, I just left. Couldn’t stand the darkness. Not after what I’d just seen.

I leaned back against one of the tunnel walls, breathing hard like I’d just run a marathon.

“Holy shit…

What the fuck had we just gotten ourselves into?

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